Free Love: Chapter Ten
"Amy!" Luke's on his feet in an instant and moving towards me. "I- Stella said that I could wait. She said you wouldn't be long."
I'm going to kill her for not warning me. But it's no wonder that her parting words were 'have fun' because he's even more gorgeous than I remember. He's leaner than before and his hair is longer than it was three years ago, touching the collar of his shirt at the back and flopping forward over his eyes. However those eyes are still as blue as they were in my memories, and my heart flutters as they fix on me. He stops inches away, looking suddenly uncertain.
"I brought you something," he says. He pulls a brown paper bag from his jacket pocket and passes it to me. Our fingers brush slightly when I take it and after so long apart, even this small a contact is enough to send a tiny thrill down my spine. When I give Luke a curious look, he shrugs and nods at the bag. "Open it."
I do, and find myself in possession of a half-drunk bottle of tequila. It's something I never thought I'd see again; it's the same bottle that Stella gave to me and Luke took away with him. I know this because Stella had scribbled a little note to me on the label and it's still visible, albeit slightly faded.
"You kept it, all this time," I whisper, running my finger across the tattered label. I look up at him. "Why?"
"You told me to," he replies with another shrug. "And I liked that it reminded me of my promise. It's so stupid, but I used to take it out the bag and look at it most nights. It made me feel closer to you, somehow. I missed you so much, Amy. I've wanted to see you for so long but now that I am, it doesn't seem real."
"How did you know where I live?" I ask. I know exactly what he means about the reality of this moment as I hesitantly stretch out towards him, not sure if I'm seeing and hearing someone who isn't really here. His hand comes up to clasp mine tightly, confirming his presence.
"Sally told me. I've been back in touch with her for a while." I'm going to kill her too. Luke smiles at me. "As a matter of fact, most of our conversations have revolved around the same thing; when exactly I was going to come up here and see you."
I don't smile back, mostly because I'm too busy working out how I feel about his sudden arrival back in my life. I wish one of them – Stella or Sally - had said something to me, to give me a chance to prepare for this moment at least a little. I thought that the twinge of doubt I've always felt about whether I'd still want him would vanish instantly on seeing him again, but it seems to want to stay a little longer.
After a minute's thought I decide that I could be happy about it, but there are some things I need to understand first. The more mature, rational Amy takes over at this point, which is good because the old Amy just wants to drag him into the bedroom and leave the talking until after, and I don't think that would be wise right now.
Not that I'm entirely ruling it out as a possible activity for later, of course. Now that he's finally here in front of me after so long, I'm quite keen to get reacquainted with those lips of his, not to mention the rest of him.
I become aware that my mind is wandering and, with a lot of effort, force grown-up Amy to the forefront again.
"Where have you been, Luke? And why haven't you got in touch with me before now?"
I have so many questions but I content myself with those two to start with. Realising I'm still holding his hand, I drop it to find my keys in my bag and then walk to the door of my apartment, unlocking it before beckoning him inside. Sally's wedding invitation and the postcard fall to the floor forgotten and I leave the tequila on the hall table, interested only in what he has to say. We move through into the den and he settles himself on the edge of the couch, throwing his jacket over the arm as he does so. I drop down next to him, making sure to leave a slight distance between us.
"I've been in New Mexico," he explains, and my eyes fly to the postcard lying in the hall. Suddenly the photograph is of the most precious sunset in the world. "I've been working at trying to get enough cash together to open up a garage of my own. My friend Pete knows this guy Doug, another mechanic, who's looking for a business partner. He thought it was something I might be interested in so I came up to discuss the possibility. See, Pete knows that I want to come back here someday."
"You do?" I say. "Here?"
Luke nods. "The garage I'd be buying into isn't far from here." He looks at me. "And I haven't been in touch before now because I figured that having me come around and complicate things again wasn't really what you needed."
"What I needed was to know you were all right," I say softly. "Was one phone call to much to ask for?"
"Amy, I couldn't." I'm about to speak again when he cuts me off. "Please, just listen. Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to walk away from you? It killed me, but I did it because it was the right thing to do. If I'd called you, it wouldn't have been once. I wouldn't have been able to stop myself from doing it again, and we would have been right back where we started."
"Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to watch you walk away?" I counter. "At least you knew where I was, could find out if I was okay. I had no idea what was going on with you! The number of times I had to stop myself from thinking about all the terrible things which could have happened to you…you could have written one letter. Just one scribbled line, even, to let me know you were all right. That was all you had to do."
Luke sighs. "I know, and I'm sorry I couldn't do it. It just seemed like the easiest way."
"Running away is always easy," I point out sharply. "Staying to face up to things; now that takes courage."
"And that's courage I didn't have, Amy, not then," he tells me. "Why do you think I ended up on your doorstep in the first place? You saw the mess I was in; I was practically scared of my own shadow. I had all this anger inside of me and I didn't know how to let it out. Being with you eased the pain for a while, but then it got all screwed up again and hurt even more." He shakes his head. "I had to make it stop. If I didn't, if things had gotten worse…it would have killed me."
I slowly nod my head at that. "I thought I knew how you felt, but I didn't. Not really. I was so wrapped up in what was happening between us I didn't stop to think about you or anyone else. Even when you told me about it, I didn't really understand. Not until much later, after Sally had filled in a few details and you'd left."
"I think perhaps you had to have been there to understand," Luke comments dryly as he absently pushes a blond lock out of his eyes. "Talking to you helped - hell, just being around you helped - but not enough. When Pete offered me the job it was the answer I'd been looking for. He had seen what I had; he would understand what I was going through because he was going through it too. I needed someone like that in my life."
He pauses to emphasise what comes next. "It wasn't about leaving you, Amy. I didn't want to do it, but I needed to. The last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt you. Please believe that, if nothing else."
The ease with which Luke is able to tell me how he felt stuns me; previously, apart from on the occasion he broke down and told me about the ambush, he never shared anything about his emotions. I could see that he was affected but we never really addressed it in any great depth, and almost everything I learned about how he was reacting to the horrors he'd seen I learned from Sally. The fact that he can talk so freely with me now makes me realise that whatever he did to deal with the memories of Vietnam has worked.
I realise that my sister was right to refuse to reveal his location every time I begged her to tell me where he was. Sally always said that Luke would come back when he was ready, and if we tried to bring him back to us any earlier than that it would be disastrous. I didn't like it much at the time, but suddenly I can understand why. He would have remained a shadow of his former self, refusing to let his mental wounds heal or move on with life.
But this man next to me now – earnest, caring, and entirely sure of himself and the truth of what he's saying - is the Luke I remember from growing up. It's like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders; he's ready to live again.
At some point and without noticing, I've slid closer to him and tentatively rested my hand on his knee. Now his hand finds mine there, and I curl my fingers around his without hesitation while he tilts his head towards me, awaiting my answer.
My heart swells in response to his touch. There's no doubt that my pride was injured by his leaving but my love never faltered, and now I know why. Some part of me, my heart perhaps, understood that his need to flee was far greater than my desire to have him stay even if my head didn't.
"I believe it," I say, then add, "I believe you."
The smile that greets my admission is nothing less than dazzling, and now I'm near enough to see something in his eyes which wasn't there three years ago. Hope burns brightly in his blue gaze and it warms me, banishing the last of my doubts.
"I brought you something else, other than the tequila, I mean," he says.
He pulls his hand from mine as he turns away and grabs his jacket; I'm reluctant to let him go but curious to see what else he's brought. Luke rummages around in the pocket the bottle wasn't in, and eventually produces a thick bundle of envelopes.
"What's this?" I ask, frowning, as he hands them over to me. The bundle is neatly tied with some string that's starting to fray at the edges; the top envelope looks slightly dirty and I can distinctly see an oily thumbprint in the left corner.
"It's your letters," he says simply, slipping his hand in mine again.
For the first time I notice that it's my old address scrawled across the envelope. "You wrote to me?" An enormous lump has just wedged itself in my throat and I find it difficult to speak.
He nods. "I was going to post them so many times, but I never did. I couldn't; I don't really know why. Maybe I was afraid you wouldn't be interested any more, or something. But I kept writing them anyway; one a week just like I always did. The real story of what happened in Vietnam, how I felt about what happened between us, what I did in the three years I was away…it's all in there."
I run my hand lightly across the top of the bundle, noting the contrast between the roughness of the string and the smooth paper. "What about the postcard that was in the mail today? That was from you too, wasn't it?" I ask.
"Yes," Luke confirms. "I had just posted it when Stella came down and caught me at your mailbox. She convinced me to wait and talk to you myself."
"Why was it blank? I mean, I would never have known who it was from if you hadn't stayed," I say.
"I didn't think walking back into your life without any warning was a good idea. I was going to do it gradually; you know, the next postcard would have had a message on it, maybe my address, and then after that I'd have sent you a letter." He grins. "I thought I was being romantic, but Stella said I was being stupid.
"She told me that she was sick and tired of having to deal with you pining over my useless ass, and if I let you throw away one more minute of your life because of my insistence on playing ridiculous games, she'd rip up the postcards before you even got to see them. And then she would rip- well, I don't think you need to hear what she was going to do next. Let's just say that your roommate can be very persuasive when she wants to be."
"You'll have to forgive her," I laugh. "She's only just recently discovered her romantic soul, and it's still causing her some problems."
Luke shrugs. "Her heart is in the right place. She really cares about you, Amy. And she has a point; I don't really want to waste any more time."
"Do you want me to read them all? I'd like to, but…are you sure you really want me to? It won't hurt you if I do, if I know the full story of what happened?" I ask softly, and Luke shrugs.
"It's entirely your decision," he replies just as quietly. "Sure, I won't deny that I'm terrified you'll find a reason to hate me in there, but I wrote it all down because I want you to know everything. I never want to have any secrets from you again."
"I could never hate you, Luke," I say seriously, and as our gazes meet and hold I'm so entranced by the depth of the feeling I can see in his eyes I almost don't hear his next words.
"You can read all about it in those if you want to, but basically once Pete got in touch everything seemed to fall into place. I knew that working with him would mean having someone to talk to, and leaving would give Sally grounds to divorce me," he says. "Life's too short to spend it with someone you don't love, I know that better than anyone now, and Sally deserved to be free to be with David; she tried to help me even though I treated her horribly."
"What about us?" I can't stop myself asking. "You and me, Luke; what do we deserve?"
Setting the letters to one side, I dare to move my free hand up his arm to his shoulder, lightly caressing his muscles through his shirt. My eyes flicker down to his lips in time to watch them curve into a smile.
"My meeting went well; Doug said he'd be happy to have me on board. I only have one question to get answered before I accept his offer," he says.
"Which is?" I hold my breath.
Luke quirks an eyebrow at me and I know what he's about to ask. I slide my hand up from his shoulder and caress his jaw-line with a shaking thumb. I'm surprisingly nervous, but then you probably would be too if the moment you'd been waiting for your whole life had finally arrived.
He catches my wrist with his free hand and gently places my palm over his heart. "I love you Amy, but the truth is I have no idea how you feel about me, not really. Not anymore. You're a whole lot smarter than I am, and maybe while I was away you decided you don't want or need me in your life.
"So the question is this - will you have me? It doesn't have to be right now, and I'm not suggesting that we jump right into a serious commitment, but I need to know that one day you might-"
I kiss him then - a short, sharp kiss designed purely to shut him up that turns into something longer and more meaningful as our lips part and he draws me into his arms. When I finally pull away he's smiling, and it's obvious that my actions have told him how I feel but I say it aloud anyway.
I don't know if I'll ever read those letters, but I am certain that there's nothing written in them that could possibly change the way I feel about him. So just before he kisses me again, I offer up four words I've wanted to say forever; words I've kept locked away inside my heart where no-one could hear them. Until now, that is.
"I love you Luke."
At long last, I'm free.
Yes, folks, we've made it to the end! I just want to thank everyone who's taken the time to review this story. Your positive response was much more than I expected and I really appreciate all the encouragement and help you've provided. I'll probably continue to tinker with this story from time to time and act on some of your suggestions – I already plan to re-edit it - so thank you!
15 March 2003 – a one-shot prequel called "Walking on the Moon" has been posted. It's a little piece about Sally and her early-morning meeting with David Black. If you're interested, please check it out!